City to consider ‘historic’ tag for La Jolla post office

By Pat Sherman

The City of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board will decide whether to add the Wall Street post office to its list of local historic places at its April 25 hearing.

The city confirmed receipt of a roughly $1,200 fee submitted by USPS this week, which is required to consider a site for inclusion on San Diego’s historic register.

In January, the Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force was successful in its attempt to have the National Park Service add the Wall Street post office to its National Register of Historic Places, affording the building another layer of protection.

It has been more than a year since the cash-strapped USPS announced plans to sell the Wall Street post office and relocate its services to a smaller, rented facility within a one-mile radius.

A USPS representative assured the La Jolla Light last week that the building has not yet been listed for sale.

Should the 1934 building be sold, whoever purchases it will have to assure its historic characteristics remain in tact.

USPS regional property manager Diana Alvarado confirmed that the “defining characteristics” of the Wall Street post office’s interior and exterior were recently identified. Those characteristics will be placed on a covenant easement that will transfer with the deed of the property should the building be put on the market, she said.

The post office sale was largely delayed last year pending completion of the Section 106 process, which requires federal agencies, such as the USPS, to study the impact of a sale or alteration to buildings either listed on or eligible for inclusion on the National Register.

According to USPS Federal Preservation Officer and real estate specialist Dallan Wordekemper, the final step in completing the Section 106 is for an entity to assume responsibility for maintaining and enforcing the covenant — including financial responsibility for assuring the buyer maintains the WPA-era building’s historic characteristics.

Wordekemper said the characteristics of the Wall Street post office to be listed in the covenant include “all of the features as defined” in the nomination packet the task force submitted for inclusion on the National Register.

Locating an entity to assume responsibility for the covenant may prove challenging for USPS. Both the San Diego- based Save Our Heritage Organisation and the La Jolla Historical Society said they do not have the financial resources to oversee the covenant.

According to Alvarado, USPS is currently working with the Los Angeles Conservancy to assume responsibility for a covenant easement onthe Santa Monica post office for a one-time fee of $25,000.

Wordekemper said the California State Office of Historic Preservation (which also granted the Wall Street post office historic designation) said it also does not have “the financial capacity nor the ability (to oversee and enforce the covenant).” (Preservation covenants on post office properties have typically been overseen by a state’s historic preservation office, he said.)

“We’ve had to seek another method or solution to the problem here,” said Wordekemper, noting that USPS would “prefer to have the City of San Diego take on the responsibility” for the covenant.

“They gave us the impression that they had no problem with this,” Wordekemper said. “We’ll find out on April 25.”

However, a representative with the office of City Council representative Sherri Lightner told the task force last week that the city has no plans to accept responsibility for the covenant.

Wordekemper said whether the city will ultimately assume that responsibility “has not been determined at this time.”

Fate of the mural

One key element Wordekemper said would not be included in the preservation covenant is the interior WPA-commissioned mural by artist Belle Baranceanu, which he said is USPS property.

USPS could enter into a loan agreement with a buyer to maintain the mural where it is, perhaps for a 25-year period with an option to renew, or find an alternate home for the mural.

Though Wordekemper said USPS has a “boilerplate of various things that need to be in (the covenant),” he said “some of those things are more a work in progress” when it comes time to negotiate with a buyer, such as the mural.

“It is our goal to keep it where it is,” he said. “Now, is the buyer of the building ideal for that? We don’t know until it happens.”

When the post office in Fairfield, Conn., was sold last year for $4.3 million, USPS paid to have its WPA-era mural shipped to Chicago, professionally restored and reinstalled in Fairfield’s Independence Hall. A committee of residents, town selectmen and university staff was organized to determine the best site for the mural.

Alvarado said that should La Jolla’s post office mural be moved, similar input would be sought. The La Jolla Historical Society museum would likely be the first place USPS considers moving it to, she said.

More on the proposed sale

Though Alvarado said USPS had the Wall Street post office property appraised about 10 months ago, she declined to disclose that figure, which she said would likely need to be updated to reflect subsequent market fluctuations.

Should the post office be listed for sale, Alvarado said USPS would provide the public and city officials with “a list of contending sites that we would possibly relocate to, and post a 30- day notice of USPS’s intent to list the building for sale.

“Then when we’ve actually selected a site, another notification goes out with the same 30-day posting,” she said.

The public would have 15 days to appeal the decision to list the building for sale, Alvarado said.

“Of course, by the time you negotiate a lease and renovate it for us to occupy it, it could take up to a year — that’s after we clear the Section 106, so it’s a pretty long process,” she said.

Alvarado said a rental property has not been found in which to relocate the Wall Street post office services.

“We’re just beginning to think about it,” she said, adding that there have been no “formal” negotiations.

She said USPS is looking for a space in the range of 6,000 square feet that can accommodate window boxes and post office boxes.

“We sometimes can get pretty creative (with the space),” she said.

Alvarado said USPS has not yet considered such a creative use of the existing Wall Street post office building, though she maintained that USPS is not averse to the task force’s plan of hav- ing a community nonprofit purchase the building and lease a portion of it back to USPS. The postal service would then maintain services on Wall Street, leaving the remainder of the building for various community or commercial uses.

“We’re obviously looking for appraised value and higher, but you know (USPS will) weigh different things,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that the most cash is what they’re going to go with. It could be its (future) use too.”

According to the website,

, about a dozen historic post offices have recently been sold, and another 40 — including the Wall Street post office — are listed as for sale or about to be put on the market.